Alternatives to using credit cards for this holiday shopping time

Back in 2002, I, along with my family, went on a Disney vacation that consisted of a Disney cruise and several days at Disney World in Orlando.  While in Orlando, we dined and shopped at several Orlando area establishments. One of them, we never quite figured out which, employed someone who decided that they would like to do some shopping of their own…with my debit card number.  Fortunately, I belong to a credit union that is always looking at purchases and will call if they spot something that is out of the ordinary for us.  Due to the vigilant credit union, we only lost a total of fifty dollars.  It could have been worse, much worse.  It taught me a valuable lesson about how and where I use my cards.  Unlike most people, I don’t distrust online purchasing more than in-person transactions.

Think about your own transaction habits:  how often do you give your card to a waiter or waitress who then walks away with said card for minutes at a time.  Most restaurants do not have cash registers out where you can see from any spot in the dining area.  Often, the wait staff takes your card and disappears, only to reappear minutes later with something for you to sign.  How do know they didn’t photograph your card or, at least, jot the name and number down? You don’t know.  You have to trust them. 

I’m not one who likes to carry cash around.  I usually have a small amount on me, but I just don’t like carrying cash. So, I use my debit or other credit/money cards almost exclusively.  So, how can you do this and not risk having your card number stolen?  Well, there are several things you can do to mitigate your chances of having your numbers stolen and your accounts breached.

The first and easiest thing to do is write on your card “Check ID”.  This method is, however, only as good as the person who takes your card.  If they do not bother to turn the card over and read it, then this method is useless.  I am happy to say, however, that more and more establishments are teaching their clerks to do this.  Best Buy, Cracker Barrel and Five Guys are pretty consistent about this.  Radio Shack, Friday’s and Target seem to be spotty, though at Target you put the card in yourself and the clerk rarely asks for it.  I’m thinking this is not good.  At any rate, the point is the big box stores and eateries are doing a better job than the local establishments, at least in Richmond, seem to be doing.

Another really nice way to go is to use gift cards or refillable store cards.  I keep a AAA Travel Card, which appears to be a Visa to most, as well as a Starbucks card. There are a multitude of these cards now and maintaining them is pretty easy. Most of them have a web site where you can go to refill them.  Keep the amounts low so that if the card is lost or stolen, you won’t lose a lot of money and if you report the loss or theft promptly, you might even get most of the money back.

Lastly, an easy thing to do is get a few ‘throw away’ credit cards with very low limits, say $500 or so.  Use them for your everyday purchases or online purchases.  Keeping the limits low can mitigate any potential loss as well as make it easy to maintain. 

Personally, I like the store cards and the travel cards the most.  They are refillable, you do not pay any interest and you don’t have to pay them off.  Most places will accept the travel cards and getting cards from the stores or restaurants you shop the most will make it easier and safer than carrying lots of cash or running up large credit card bills.  And most places do not charge extra for the cards or, if they do, it is a very small price to pay for the convenience and security they offer.

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